So our reg system is a problem, is it?

The Irish Times published this article about how we were selling more cars this year like it’s a good thing. I’ve mixed feelings about how good it is because frankly, a significant majority of the motor industry in Ireland is retail sales based on imports. I don’t think we have anything more than a few components factories in the country and certainly no major league auto assembly.

So there’s this. If we skip the nitpicking feeling I have that this is an extremely poorly written article from a stylistic point of view and move on to the actual content, I’m a bit worried about it. I have to wonder how much reality it actually reflects.

The scorn that some drivers received on the roads last year simply because of the number plates on their cars raises an issue that now needs further consideration.

I’m really confused by this. I know we didn’t sell a whole lot of cars last year nationwide, but still I find it difficult to believe that people were made to feel guilty about it. I don’t inhabit that kind of world, admittedly but was there really that much ill-feeling on the highways and byeways if you dared to display a 09 on your registration plate?

In simple terms, I really don’t believe it happened.

If we are to help the long-term survival of the motor industry and the thousand it employs we need to reassess our number plate system. There remains far too much focus on start of year sales, driven largely by a registration system that gives such prominence to the year of registration. It creates an unnecessary social status issue, that means dealerships are over-run at the start of the year and virtually idle from the autumn period.

Removing the year from the registration plate seems a sensible approach. The industry can do their bit as well: ensuring that trade-in prices take account of the months of ownership rather than simply valuing all cars for a single year under the same price bracket. There are many suggestions for an alternative to the current year system. It’s time to open the debate.

The current registration plate system was introduced in 1987 and is delightfully simple, consisting of the year, a region identifier and a rolling counter. It has little to do with with how healthy we want the auto industry to be.

Purely economically, new cars bought in Ireland are imported. They contribute to our balance of trade and not necessarily in a positive way. Certainly they contribute a certain amount of tax take via VRT; however, from an economic and environmental point of view, it is not really viable to continue buying and selling the volume of cars we were selling between 2000 and 2006, for example. If nothing else, that level of new car purchase causes major over supply and storage issues on the second hand front.

I can’t see, either, how changing the registration number system will change the actual number of cars bought or sold; and if you are in a cyclical business with specific seasons, surely this factors into how you manage your business. It may balance it across the year somewhat – although I doubt it based on experience in other countries where new year sales spurts were all too common also – but it will not increase your turnover too much. The market only buys what it can bear. And with the best will in the world, not too many people trust the second hand car market to be honest and up front. I wouldn’t be dependent on them playing their part as described in the quote above.

We need to face up to the fact that the glory days of the early 2000s are gone. The personal transportation market is going to change; will have changed forced on it by environmental factors. Messing around with the reg system will not address that reality; and to be honest, I see little or no evidence that the motor industry recognises that it’s not really all that important to Ireland anyway. We can probably survive on fewer dealers than we have now, that’s for sure.

In short, I think this thesis is superficial and ill thought out.

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